Fortescue, Sir John (1533–1607), administrator
by J. Andreas Löwe

Fortescue, Sir John (1533–1607), administrator, was the eldest of three sons of , landowner and alleged traitor, of Shirburn and Stonor Place, Oxfordshire, and his second wife, Anne (1510–1585), daughter of Sir William Rede of Boarstall, Buckinghamshire. One of his younger brothers was . Their father was executed for alleged treason on 9 July 1539, probably because of his kinship with Anne Boleyn [see ] and because of his connection with the Poles. Fortescue's mother married , administrator, about 1540. In 1551, following his restitution in blood by act of parliament, Fortescue took possession of his father's estate. About 1555 he entered Princess Elizabeth's household, assisting his stepfather at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and becoming clerk of the library in 1559. About 1556 he married Cecily (d. 1570), daughter of Sir Edmund Ashfield of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, and his wife, Eleanor. They had four sons, including the MPs Francis (b. before 1562, d. 1624), William (c.1562–1629), and Thomas (b. c.1566, d. after 1593), and two daughters. On 20 November 1558, three days after Elizabeth's accession, Parry was appointed comptroller of the royal household and sworn of the privy council. Most likely at his instigation, on 22 July 1559 Fortescue was made keeper of the great wardrobe, a post he held until his death. As keeper, Fortescue was responsible for the care of royal attire, ‘cloths and stuff’, armour, state documents, and the occasional detention and interrogation of prisoners (CPR, 1558–60, 354).

During summer 1559 Parry granted Fortescue the lease of the manor of Salden in Buckinghamshire. In 1560 Fortescue was made ranger of Wychwood Forest and Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire. He progressively acquired more property in the two counties, purchasing the manors of Drayton Parslow and Tickford in Buckinghamshire and leasing from the queen the manor of Swyncombe in Oxfordshire. In 1599 Fortescue bought the manor of Spelsbury as well as the town of Burford, Oxfordshire, for £2500 and is said to have spent in excess of £33,000 on the construction of a house at Salden. He also acquired the manor house at Hendon in Middlesex and, in addition to his official residence in Blackfriars, owned a house in Westminster. In 1598 he negotiated with Sir Robert Cecil over the purchase of another house in Chelsea.

Before his move to Salden in 1559, Fortescue probably still lived on Parry's estates in Wallingford, Berkshire. Fortescue's first wife died in 1570 and he married Alice (d. after 1607), daughter of Christopher Smythe of Annables, Hertfordshire, and his wife, Margaret. They had one daughter. Parry was MP for the borough of Wallingford and his stepson succeeded to the seat in 1559. Fortescue was MP there again in 1572. In 1567 he was appointed steward of Charlbury in Oxfordshire and two years later he was named of the quorum for Buckinghamshire. In 1584 he was appointed steward of the town of Buckingham and was returned as its MP in 1586. He was knight of the shire for Buckinghamshire three times (1589, 1593, and 1597). His influence in the county was extended further when, in late autumn 1586, he was appointed a commissioner of array for Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire to recruit troops for deployment to the Low Countries.

On 10 February 1588 Fortescue's hitherto loyal yet undistinguished service at court was rewarded with his appointment as a privy councillor. This was typical of the queen's habit of advancing long-standing servants. The parliamentary commissions he sat on before his preferment were merely concerned with routine subjects such as gamekeeping (18 February 1581), the leases of his local diocese (13–15 March 1581), or the learned ministry (8 March 1587). As a privy councillor and, from 1589 to 1603, in his capacity as under-treasurer and chancellor of the exchequer, Fortescue gradually became closely involved in the daily administration of the realm, although his role in parliament remained marginal. As a parliamentary commissioner, he contributed to matters of ecclesiastical discipline, such as the plurality of benefices (20 March 1589), and was noted for his pragmatism and his frequent appeal to tradition.

Despite the pressure of work in the exchequer, Fortescue still presided over an impressive number of lawsuits. These ranged from ‘howshold cases’, to the indictment of ‘lewd and badd people’, Middlesex property disputes, grievances of London guilds, or a suit concerning a ‘garden plott’ in the Tower of London (APC, 1590, 324; 1591, 51; 1597–8, 363). His close involvement, early in 1593, in the examination of a number of recusant seminarians in London led to the setting up of two privy council committees on the matter.

Later in 1593 Fortescue was appointed keeper of Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, and custos rotulorum for Buckinghamshire. By the following year he had been named custos rotulorum for Middlesex. His local influence was buttressed by the return of his brother Thomas Fortescue (1534–1611) as MP for Wallingford in 1593, 1597, and 1601, and the election of his eldest son, Francis Fortescue, as MP for Buckingham in 1589, 1593, and 1597, and for Buckinghamshire in 1601. Fortescue was rather fastidious about protocol and on the first day of business, 27 October 1597, ‘moved and admonished that hereafter no member of the House should come into the House with their spurs on, for the offending of others’ (D'Ewes, 550). His defeat in the 1604 Buckinghamshire elections by the puritan Francis Goodwin prompted a minor constitutional crisis for the crown and the House of Commons, raising in turn the important question as to whether parliament or the courts had jurisdiction over electoral matters. At the instigation of the court of chancery, Goodwin's election was declared void on the basis of a prior charge of outlawry. A hearing of both candidates by the Commons in March 1604, however, led to the approval of Goodwin by MPs. James VI and I, as arbiter, is said to have displayed considerable indifference in the matter, since Fortescue ‘was a councillor not brought in by himself’ (TNA: PRO, C 142/305/132). The king decided to return both parties as MPs for Buckinghamshire, but Fortescue sat for Middlesex instead, where, by virtue of his London residence, he had been a lord lieutenant since 1596 and had been MP in 1601 (having stepped down from his Buckinghamshire seat to make way for his heir).

Fortescue's contributions to parliamentary debate on the whole remained insignificant. In addition to his regular reports from the subsidy committee of the privy council, he attended minor parliamentary committees, among them discussions on Aylesbury (20 December 1598) and the improvement of attaining a reliable seven mile mark from Great Yarmouth (23 January 1599). At the 1601 parliament he left it to Cecil to defend government policy on the subsidy. Fortescue merely ‘spake … to the like effect’. He appealed to parliament in support of increased subsidies: ‘I beseech you, remember that the Great Turk when he conquered Constantinople found therin three hundred millions of gold; if they, quoth he, had bestowed three millions in defence of the city, he could have never gotten it. From this blindness, I pray God defend us’ (D'Ewes, 685).

Fortescue was chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster from 24 September until 3 October 1601, and then again from 4 November 1601 until his death. For two months, from 23 October 1607, he held the office in conjunction with his half-brother, . Early in July 1602 Fortescue was asked to give up his new residence, Duchy House in the Savoy, to accommodate his successor as chancellor of the exchequer, Sir George Home. Fortescue protested in a letter to Cecil: ‘the loss would be a great touch to my reputation’ (Salisbury MSS, 16.171).

While Fortescue held a number of key offices, his contribution to English political life remained marginal. His loyalty to the crown is paralleled by his loyalty to his wider family. During the trial of his distant relative , with whom he was on close terms, he is said to have given his charges so quietly as to be inaudible. In 1603 Essex's uncle, Sir George Devereux, reflected that Fortescue had shown the earl ‘more benevolent favour [… than his other] friends and kindred’ (Letters of John Chamberlain, 1.48). Later commentators single out Fortescue's learning, and in particular his aptitude for classical languages, alongside his trustworthiness and his ability to foster lasting friendships. He conducted extensive private correspondence with personal friends such as Francis and Anthony Bacon, Sir Wiliam Cecil, Essex, and Sir Walter Ralegh, much of which survives.

Fortescue died without the provision of a will on 23 December 1607. John Chamberlain commented: ‘he left no will, which is thought strange for a man of his years and state: so that his wife carries away all the goods, and her daughter … the house, land and furniture here at Hendon in Middlesex’ (Letters of John Chamberlain, 1.248). A friend of Sir Thomas Bodley, during his lifetime Fortescue donated manuscripts and books to the Bodleian Library. He is buried in the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Mursley, Buckinghamshire.



Chancery, patent rolls, TNA: PRO, C 66/1421 · TNA: PRO, chancery, inquisitions post mortem, series II, C 142/305/132 · CPR, 1558–60, 90, 118, 354, 426; 1569–72, no. 1878, 3121; 1578–80, no. 1030 · APC, 1586–7, 115; 1588–9, 76, 186; 1590, 21, 208, 324, 338; 1591, 51, 242; 1592–3, 145; 1597–8, 363 · CSP dom., 1595–7, 4, 566; 1598–1601, 252 · Statutes at large (1619), 5.xiv · W. Camden, Annales: the true and royall history of the famous Empresse Elizabeth, trans. A. Darcie (1625), 2.27 · S. D'Ewes, ed., The journals of all the parliaments during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1682), 549, 550, 553–62, 664–8, 685 · D. Lloyd, State worthies, or, The state men and favourites of England since the Reformation (1670), 556 · The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 1 (1939), 48, 248 · R. Somerville, History of the duchy of Lancaster, 1265–1603 (1953) · HoP, Commons, 1558–1603, 2.147–52


BL, Add. MS 4119 · BL, Harley MSS, corresp. · BL, expenses of coronation of James I, Add. MS 34321 · E. Sussex RO, financial papers · HMC Hatfield, xvi. 171 94f. · Leics. RO, abstract accounts |  Hunt. L., letters to Temple family


S. Hunt, oils, 1879 (after contemporary portrait), Bodl. Oxf.

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Sir John Fortescue (1533–1607): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9945